The history of Chinsegut Hill (pronounced “chin-SEE-gut”) is as rich as the ruggedly-lush Old Florida habitat from which it emerged more than 165 years ago. Today, thanks to the persistent efforts of concerned public and private benefactors, the manor house and property are symbols of a pioneering spirit and a commitment to conservation.
Seminole Indians had mostly inhabited this land, which is the highest elevation on what is now known as Florida’s Nature Coast, before it was settled as a sugar and corn plantation by South Carolina lawyer Col. Bird Pearson in 1847. He built the original structure where the manor house now stands. It was known then as Mount Airy.
It has changed several times in name, ownership and physical structure. But the enduring legacy of this landmark, now listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, began in 1905. That is when the property was acquired by Raymond Robins and his sister Elizabeth Robins, an acclaimed author and actor. They renamed it Chinsegut Hill. Mr. Robins, a world traveler who spent time in Brooksville as a child, chose the name from time spent prospecting gold on the frontier of Alaska. Translated from the language of the Inuit Indians, Chinsegut means “the spirit of things lost and regained.”
Shortly after the Robins’ siblings bought the property, Mr. Robins married Margaret Dreier. Their oversight of the property, and their political and social activism in both national and international arenas, is legendary. Mr. Robins was the trusted advisor of several U.S. presidents, while Mrs. Robins was an advocate and organizer for women’s and children’s rights. At Chinsegut, the Robins entertained, among others, Helen Keller, William Jennings Bryant, Thomas Edison, J.C. Penney, Jane Addams and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
The Robins eventually deeded over 2,000 acres of their land to the federal government for the purpose of agricultural scientific study. Another portion of the gift later became part of the Chinsegut Wildlife and Environmental Area. After their deaths the Manor House and 115 acres was transferred to the State of Florida.
The property was first leased by the University of Florida, then later transferred to the University of South Florida in 1974 and used as a retreat site for academic conferences. USF added the dining hall, classroom and cottages and listed the Manor House on the National Historic Register in 2003. In 2009, USF notified the state it no longer wished to lease the property.
A non-profit organization formed in 2008, The Friends of Chinsegut Hill, Inc., were determined to keep the property open to the pubic and contacted the State with the intent on finding a new caretaker. The group helped persuade the Hernando County Board of County Commissioners to lease the property from the state, which then subleased it to The Friends of Chinsegut Hill. That partnership resulted in a $1.5 million appropriation from the Florida Legislature to restore the manor house and continue the property’s history as a conference and retreat venue. The renovation was completed in 2014 and now the Manor House, the historical centerpiece for special events held on the grounds and facilities, is also used as an office, gift shop and accessory meeting space.